Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Explosions, Collisions, Exams

Well, it's been quite a week or two.As some may know, I have been working hard towards getting my P.E. (Professional Engineer) license. This license allows the engineer to legally sign on drawings confirming that a design is correct, testify in a court of law, and show that he or she is generally capable of making competent engineering design decisions where human lives, health, or property is at risk. In order to get a P.E. license, one must first pass the E.I.T. (Engineer In Training) exam, accumulate three years of industry experience, and then pass the P.E. exam.

I've been studying for almost six months for the E.I.T. I have also been working long overtime hours (about 60 hours per week) until recently. Fortunately, the design project I've been working on so hard finally went out to the client. I suddenly found myself on a normal working schedule on October 1st, so I decided to really put the pedal to the metal studying. For a solid month (minus, of course, Sukkot) I was studying for three hours per day on weekdays and all day Sunday.

Two Fridays ago, I left work early to try to get in some studying before Shabbes started. There I was sitting at the intersection minding my own business when I heard some popping noises and looked in my rearview mirror to see flying glass and pieces of car. Before I could think, I was rear-ended and my car was thrown into a busy intersection. My car still ran, and I managed to pull to the side of the road with pieces of my car falling off. I really consider myself fortunate, since the person to the left of me had her car totaled and was hauled off in an ambulance, and the person to the left of her and to the right of me were both smashed up in the accident, but I walked away with only rear damage but a running car.

My car managed to limp home. On the way I was consoled upon hearing that Arafat died. I made a temporary repair by duct taping my bumper back onto my car, which has held up very well even in the rain. My insurance broker keeps calling me with tips to weasel money out of the insurance company.

The E.I.T. exam is always given on Saturday, but I received an exemption for religious reasons, which the exam proctor referred to as a "social handicap" and I was allowed to take it a different day. The exam covers everything you learn as an undergraduate, including calculus, thermodynamics, statics, dynamics, electric circuitry, fluid mechanics, physics, chemistry, and computer programming. The test is eight hours long, broken up into a four hour morning section on general engineering and four hour discipline-specific afternoon section, in my case mechanical engineering. I feel pretty good about the morning section, but I’m not so sure about the afternoon section. It was a tough exam, and the effort of studying, taking time off from work, and actually taking the exam was so exhausting that I really don’t want to have to take it again. On my way home, I heard that, his recent death notwithstanding, Arafat was awake and eating cornflakes. A bad omen.

So I came home to the election, which leads me to a confession… I was so wrapped up in my studies that I missed the registration deadline. For the last week I’ve been sulking about my failure as an American. Thank heavens, the Prez-EE-dent was re-elected without my help. Unfortunately, Bush lost California, and all because of me. Still, it was quite a relief. I could say more on why I think it was right for Jews to vote Republican in this election, but then I might never be able to stop. To top off the good news, it was announced that Arafat died again. Two hours later, Arafat issued his congratulations for President Bush’s victory.

So, for the last week, I’ve been working overtime making up the hours I missed for taking the E.I.T. exam. Last night I had finally finished working off the hours, and it was to be the first time I came straight home at 5 P.M. since July. I thought that I was through the woods, but…
…three miles away from where I was working, about 200 feet behind my apartment, the utility company has been digging a pipeline to divert a local creek under the road for flood control. Construction workers managed to expose a pipeline carrying jet fuel from the refinery in Martinez down to the San Jose Airport. For whatever reason, they happened to be doing some welding work in the same trench. The contractor then decided to use a backhoe to drop sections of pipe into the trench instead of the standard and safer procedure of lowering pipe sections by crane. You can see where this is headed.

At around 2 P.M., the resulting explosion shook all of Walnut Creek, sending a ball of flaming jet fuel careening into the sky. At my work, ambulances and fire trucks raced by, but there was little they could do at that point. The blast killed three workers instantly. Two more workers are still missing (i.e. completely vaporized.) Because the fuel pipeline was under pressure, fuel shot out at high velocity and acted as a giant blowtorch, incinerating a house across the street and causing fires at three apartment buildings. One square mile of Walnut Creek, including my apartment, were evacuated completely. Firefighters put out the blaze but it kept shooting back up until late last night, when the rain mercifully started falling. Upon further investigation, I found out that the design was done by Carollo Engineers (my company.) This is the worst tragedy that our company has ever been involved in and the first where someone died. I was able to go home at 9 P.M. to find my apartment still in one piece, but the whole neighborhood stank from the fire. I checked the news before going to bed. It looks like the Arabs have finally confessed that, no, Yassir Arafat is not dead, and he will be buried in Ramallah on Friday.
Well, other than the road carnage, 60 hour weeks, tectonic political shifts, grueling exams, and catastrophic explosions of jet fuel, it’s been a quiet week here in Walnut Creek.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Shanah Tovah!

Well, I haven't been very communicative lately, so I thought I'd just write to say hi.

Things here have been okay but not great. On January first of this year, I still hadn't paid off a dime's worth of debt, which is the whole reason I had to re-enter diaspora living. Various expenses, my car repeatedly breaking down, dental work, old credit card debt, and other problems had taken up all the money I was hoping to put towards my school debt. I had always assumed that my experiences with poverty in Israel, lving for weeks at a time on a bag of potatoes and ketchup packets from Burger King and "securing" my toilet paper from the university would have taught me to be careful with my money, and I was careful, but somehow living on my own in California has just been incredibly expensive. So on Rosh Hashanah last year, I resolved to start clamping down. I cut way way back on luxury expenses and started watching every penny. I like to challenge myself with a game called "streak", where I go as many days as possible without spending any money at all. My current record is six days. Also, my weight loss program really cut back on grocery bills (yes, I'm still maintaining my weight loss of 50 lbs.) Since January every spare cent I have has gone towards the loans.

I can't say that it's been a picnick though. Walnut Creek can be a very lonely place, as it's very hard to find religious girls around here. I've looked on all of the Frum dating websites, and there are some really nice girls out there on the east coast, but they're all too far away and, because of my clamp-down on expenses it's been very difficult to travel. The more local types seem to be more on the liberal end of things, as in, "My name is Sarah and I want to have a family but I also want to be a full-time trauma surgeon," which wouldn't work for what I want in a family. I've been in contact with shidduch potentials in Israel via email, but it's so expensive that I can't afford to meet them in person, and it gradually fizzles, which is harder than having never started communicating in the first place. About a month ago, I became very depressed, to the point that I couldn't eat or sleep for three days (it was right around Tisha B'Av.) Fortunately, I have some good friends here who helped me through it, and I'm feeling a lot happier now. I've always despised depression, assuming it a form of self-pity, but when it hits you it hits hard.
I find that I'm happiest when I feel that I'm making progress towards my goal of Aliyah. The Tanya (the founding mystical text of Chabad Lubavitch) says that if one is depressed the best course of action is to make ones self busy with mitzvot, and work is a mitzvah (six days of the week you shall work and on the seventh day don't do any work at all,) so I decided to throw myself into my work. The main project I've been working on over the last year is due on Erev Rosh Hashanah (September 15th), so there's tons of work to do to get it out the door. I've been working an average of ten hours per day, six days a week. After work, I like to come home, lay down on my bed, and listen to a lesson or two on Aish Hatorah audio ( In the last five weeks I've ammassed over 100 hours of comp time, which I will eventually cash out and put toward my loans.

The good news is that I've been rewarded for my hard work with my very own office. Yes, I am no longer cubicled. I can even close the door and talk over the speaker phone with clients and vendors, or just sit at my desk and look important. Ever since they put me in the office, people stopped treating me like a trainee and started regarding me as an real life engineer. I am now managing construction of the power plant I designed for Seattle last year, meeting with clients, and coordinating our designs with subcontractors. Sometimes, people even ask me questions! The down side is that I'm now held responsible for every mistake I make. It's frustrating when someone comes back to me with a mistake I made in a design I completed a year ago that wasn't noticed until construction, and which is glaringly obvious to me now.

Well, there's lots of other stuff going on here. I have a potential roommate, so I could be moving soon. I have to study for the EIT exam which I'm taking in November. And, of course, the holidays are coming up in just two weeks!

Friday, April 30, 2004

Published - Enough Holocaust Museums

I was published in JWeekly, the San Francisco Bay Area's Jewish weekly magazine. The following editorial appears in this weekend's edition:

Enough Holocaust museums

A quick Google search will reveal no less than 26 Holocaust museums in the United States alone. Scan the headlines and you can’t miss it: a new Holocaust museum recently opened in Hungary; the groundbreaking for a Holocaust museum in Skopje, Macedonia is scheduled to begin soon. In these times, when intermarriage is skyrocketing and assimilation is following close behind, is it really appropriate to pour million after million into museums?

If the goal of these museums is to foster the memory of the Holocaust, they are failing. Polls consistently show a worldwide decrease in Holocaust awareness. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that 35 percent of Europeans think the Jews should "stop playing the victim" and 15 percent think that the Holocaust was exaggerated. The German newspaper Die Zeit found that 65 percent of German teenagers do not even know what the word "holocaust" means. Even in America, 22 percent polled by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum thought it was possible the Holocaust never took place.

Holocaust museums are equally ineffective at fostering Jewish identity. For Jewish children in the public school system, a field trip to the Holocaust museum may be the only contact with the Jewish world they have growing up. Barbed wire sculptures and photographs of emaciated corpses send a clear message to these children: "Stay away!" It sometimes seems that Yiddishkeit (Jewish feeling or content) has been replaced by Holocaustkeit.

So how can we make the memory of the Holocaust permanent, strengthen Jewish identity and boldly proclaim, "Never Again!"? Our history shows and the statistics prove that the only way to strengthen Jewish identity and prevent assimilation is through education. There are Jews walking around today, descended from survivors, who have never heard of Passover, never seen Israel,and never said the Sh’ma.

This "silent Holocaust" is made worse by the fact that it alienates the younger generation from exactly those whom it is supposed to remember. The Yiddishkeit of the six million seems foreign and strange to the Jew who has never learned. Education, outreach and personal involvement are the only way to bridge this gap, make the Holocaust more real, and ensure that there will be a next generation to remember the survivors.

A Holocaust museum can be an important memorial to the fallen, but in a generation facing the existential threats of Jewish ignorance and assimilation, we have to ask ourselves where we can most effectively direct our energy. The next time you walk into a Holocaust museum, look around and think what could have been done with all that energy and money. When you are given the guided tour of the exhibits, instead imagine that the tour guide is a Jewish-school instructor teaching about the holidays. When you are in the auditorium watching movies of bodies being piled up like cordwood, imagine that the room is a classroom full of eager students learning the aleph-bet. Try to imagine yourself as one of the victims of the gas chambers looking down on us today and ask yourself what you would rather see: a thriving Jewish school, or an expensive tomb.